A Q&A on Syria and the “Responsibility to Protect”

SyriaWhat is “Responsibility to Protect”?

“Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, is a doctrine that grew out of a 2001 report by the Canadian-established International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Unanimously endorsed as a general principle by the UN General Assembly four years later, R2P carries a hefty moral (though not legal) weight. The doctrine holds that it is the responsibility of nation states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and that if they prove unwilling or unable to do so, responsibility falls on the international community. As a last resort, this responsibility may take the form of military intervention.

What’s the difference between that and humanitarian intervention?

The concept of humanitarian intervention is older and less well-defined. While some R2P advocates prefer not to use the language of humanitarian intervention, we may think of R2P as the latest attempt to spell out and operationalize this older concept, specifically by switching the focus from the rights of self-appointed “global policemen” to the responsibilities of the international community as a whole.

Is R2P simply a dressed-up form of imperialism?

There are many hawks and warmongers around the world who seek to apply the doctrine in this way. But if they did not have R2P, surely that wouldn’t stop them from finding some other pretext for endless war. I am inclined to think of the motives behind R2P as being mostly noble, at least in the abstract. After all, it is hard to imagine that there is simply no such thing as a crime so heinous as to justify military intervention. Truly just wars may be the exception rather than the rule, but a stance of total pacifism is a bit absolutist for my taste.

So then R2P is a good thing?

Again, not quite. While considerably more fleshed out than past notions of humanitarian intervention, R2P still contains far too many abstractions and ambiguities to prevent abuse by militarists with ulterior motives.

Where does Syria fit in all this?

With a civil war raging that is estimated already to have killed 100,000 and displaced millions, and with allegations that large amounts of chemical weapons were used in an assault outside of Damascus last month, many Western politicians and journalists have advocated an attack on Syria on R2P grounds. As former Canadian Justice minister Irwin Cotler put it, “if mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.”

Well, is he right? Is the world required by R2P to intervene militarily in Syria?

No. For all its flaws, the R2P doctrine embraces the norm of non-intervention as a starting point and places the burden of proof on those who seek to break it. The following six criteria (borrowed from traditional Just War theory) must be met to allow military action: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects.

Surely putting a halt to the unspeakable violence destroying the people of Syria must be a just cause, right?

Perhaps so. But what of the other criteria? While it is not always obvious how to interpret R2P’s vague language; and while R2P’s standards for permitting intervention are, if anything, not stringent enough; it would be a stretch to believe that the case for war with Syria clears all six of the above thresholds.

Take “reasonable prospects.” This criterion requires a military action to have a good chance of bringing about a desirable outcome. With the notoriously unsavoury elements who make up large parts of the divided Syrian rebel forces, this may not be a realistic goal. What if the rebels continue, or even intensify, sectarian violence once they form government? What if, as some accounts allege, rebel factions were actually the ones responsible for last month’s suspected chemical attack, instead of the regime? What if the expected American bombardment of Syria drags other countries of the region into the war as well?

Then there is “right authority.” The original ICISS report on R2P requires any military intervention to be carried out under the auspices of the UN Security Council or, failing that, the UN General Assembly or, failing that, a regional organization (such as the Arab League) “acting within its defined boundaries.” The subsequent General Assembly endorsement of the principle restricted authorizing capability to just the Security Council, in line with established international law. In the atmosphere of pre-war sabre-rattling presently underway, the United States has not indicated that it will seek permission to attack Syria from any international body.

Okay, so no war. What should we do about Syria, then?

There are no easy answers to this question. A best-case scenario would be that the current threat of military intervention, unjustified though it is, might prompt a greater openness to diplomacy and compromise on the part of the Syrian regime. Far more likely, however, is that the civil war will just drag on. It brings no pleasure to admit this, but readily available solutions to the crisis in Syria do not present themselves through either intervention or non-intervention. In scenarios like this, the Hippocratic principle of “first, do no harm,” cited with approval in the original R2P report, must guide the actions of the international community. Right now, we need to focus our efforts on diplomacy and humanitarian aid instead of war, and hope for a breakthrough.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

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A Socialist’s Lament

socialismLet’s be clear about one thing: the New Democratic Party of Canada was never a socialist party.

For all the hands wrung and tears shed over its newly amended constitution, the NDP, since its formation in 1961, has always been a social democratic party like any other, and social democracy has been standing a respectful distance away from true socialism for nearly a century.

Once upon a time, Europe’s social democratic parties may have been the standard-bearers of Marxist orthodoxy, but following the infamous “schism” in the international socialist movement over World War I and the Russian Revolution, the parties lost their left wings to the newly founded communist parties. This division was cemented in 1919 when the German Social Democrats violently stamped out the short-lived revolutionary movements and administrations that had overtaken the country.

Over the decades that followed, social democrats — by their actions if not their words — abandoned all pretense of overthrowing the system and established themselves as modernizers and civilizers of market economies, as champions of the Keynesian, welfare-state consensus which took hold over Western Europe and North America following World War II and which, far from threatening the survival of capitalism, may well have saved it by making it more palatable to the masses. They favoured mixed economies, social safety nets, progressive taxation, government regulation, and nationalization of certain key industries, but rarely did they attempt inroads against the still overwhelmingly private ownership of the means of production or the role of markets in setting prices and distributing wealth.

Social democrats, as many commentators have stated, are merely liberals who “really mean it” (just as “democratic socialists are social democrats who really mean it,” Tony Wright has added).

As the postwar consensus unravelled in the 1970s and 1980s, social democracy continued its rightward drift. Social democratic parties were slower and more conflicted than their liberal and conservative counterparts about climbing aboard the neoliberal train, but they were largely unable or unwilling to resist the tide of history favouring privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and reduced government spending.

Canada’s NDP has been no exception to this worldwide social democratic trajectory, especially with its current leader’s avowed skepticism over tax hikes and openness to free trade agreements. Now, the decision by the party to scrub its constitution of any reference to socialism — save for a token mention of “social democratic and democratic socialist traditions” — means only that its words have finally caught up with its actions.

Like other socialists, I consider this a depressing development, but not a particularly momentous or surprising one. It is the direction of the party’s long-term evolution that I find unfortunate, rather than the recent symbolic amendment which is only a symptom. True, I have never voted for the NDP or any other notionally socialist or socialish party at the federal or provincial level. For my own reasons, I have always chosen to prioritize my environmentalism over my socialism (although the two are not exactly as separable as this statement implies). But it nevertheless has been — or rather, would be — a comfort to know that there is some party in Parliament still willing to fight the good fight long after it has ceased to be fashionable.

Socialism is a notoriously pluralistic ideology, composed of adherents both scientific and utopian, revolutionary and evolutionary, authoritarian and democratic, statist and libertarian. (Many of them attack one another with a hatred and vehemence leftists seem only to display towards their own kind.) Certainly not every socialism necessarily represents an advance over every capitalism, but by exploring beyond the free market horizon, we are at least offered a chance to expand democracy from the political realm to the economic and to embrace a mode of production that does not require infinite, ecologically destructive growth for its very survival.

Capitalism means economic rule either by elites or by impersonal “laws.” Socialism, potentially, means economic rule by all who are impacted by the economy — workers, consumers, communities at large.

Canada’s New Democrats have survived their version of the UK Labour Party’s “Clause IV” fight, and they undoubtedly believe themselves to be more electable as a result. They may be right. But their slow, lumbering move to the centre also represents a surrender in the battle of ideas, leaving the country poorer in the process.

Who will take up the cause now?

False Flags and Vapour Trails: Reflections on Conspiracy Theory

Vapour trailsYesterday, I attended a talk here in Vancouver by author and activist Yves Engler, promoting his latest book The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy. While the talk was very informative, most of the entertainment came during the question-and-answer session towards the end, during which a pair of audience members raised the topics of false flag operations and chemtrails.

Not being fully caught up on all forms of supervillainy commonly attributed to the US government, I had to look that last one up. Chemtrails refer to chemical agents placed in the vapour trails of airplanes for purposes of spreading illness, changing the weather, or controlling the population. Engler for the most part refrained from responding to that one. However, on the subject of false flag operations (military attacks made to appear as though they were executed by one’s opponents), Engler gave an utterly reasonable, if brief, reply along the lines that such operations have undoubtedly occurred historically, but that this did not mean they were everywhere. Sometimes, things actually are the way they seem.

I always feel relieved when radical thinkers resist the temptation to fall into the conspiracy theory trap, something exceedingly easy for anti-establishment types to do. Is this fair, this dismissive attitude? Is it really so simple? (See here for an interesting read on how not-so-simple it is, a read that significantly influenced my thoughts on the matter.)

If I may extend Engler’s comment on false flag operations, conspiracies in general sometimes do take place and will probably continue to do so into the future. This is uncontroversial. Well-known examples include Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. And if we include not only conspiracies of action but also conspiracies of motivation (for example, governments lying about their reasons for passing a law or pursuing a goal or invading Iraq), then there is nothing particularly uncommon about conspiracy theorizing.

Yet I feel reluctant to place myself anywhere on a spectrum that includes truthers, birthers, climate change skeptics, and Holocaust deniers. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad?

If one assumes (as I do) that the vast majority of conspiracy theories — though not quite all — are false, then it is reasonable to greet every new one not with outright rejection, nor with perfect neutrality, but with an attitude of healthy suspicion. That is an appropriate starting point, and one should adjust one’s position in one direction or the other as evidence presents itself.

Some, however, will object to the first premise above. Who says conspiracy theories are usually wrong? Maybe they have simply not been found out. Where is the evidence that proves them false, and to the extent that such evidence exists, is it reliable or is it itself part of the conspiracy?

That last question is what makes conspiracy theories, in their most extreme form, so frustrating to me. They are unfalsifiable. Any expert opinion that appears to support an opposing worldview is treated not as evidence against the conspiracy, but as evidence of how deep this thing really goes. President Obama’s birth certificate is dismissed for being short-form rather than long-form, or, if the long-form certificate is released, for allegedly being photoshopped. Scientific testimony that the Earth is warming due to fossil fuel use is dismissed as having been paid for by deep-pocketed environmentalists or some kind of global communist New World Order.

It is virtually impossible to disprove these allegations. Whatever retort one offers, the “true believers” will have an answer that weaves the retort seamlessly into the very fabric of the conspiracy. Therefore, my policy of healthy suspicion must ultimately rest on pragmatic grounds.

If we were to require the same stringently high standards of proof that conspiracy theorists demand of establishment narratives, and moreover if we were to apply these standards consistently, then it would be virtually impossible to truly know anything. We would be plunged into a world of darkness and uncertainty. No election result or ingredients list or auditor’s report would ever be trustworthy. For that matter, neither would any conspiracy theory.

In other words, in order to believe in anything — “official story” or otherwise — we must agree on a few basic things that, at least most of the time, deserve our trust. For starters, I recommend science, as well as other forms of scholarship. I would also add those facets of government that are sufficiently constrained by legal checks and transparency requirements as to be reliable. Obviously not every politician or office or agency would make that cut.

At the same time, while my policy of healthy suspicion of conspiracy theory is certainly not compatible with dogmatic mistrust of the establishment, one should not go too far in the other direction either. An open mind and a willingness to question authority are necessary so that we are not caught by surprise on those occasions when real conspiracies do occur. At the very least, mainstream voices need to stop treating the term “conspiracy theorist” as an insult.

Still, don’t expect me to run for cover the next time I see a vapour trail.

A Manifesto of Hopeless Abstractions

I have started this blog mostly in order to give voice to my political opinions, so I feel that an appropriate place to begin is with the three fundamental principles that underlie what I believe: freedom, sustainability, and equality.

Freedom is the most basic of the three — the axiom from which the other two spring forth.  I define it broadly to include doing what you want, getting what you want, and satisfying your preferences (in preference utilitarian fashion, for any moral philosophers out there).  Overall freedom in a society is a product of the negotiation of these sometimes competing individual preferences.  Needless to say, my conception of freedom incorporates both negative and positive rights.  For example, governments can and should provide the positive rights of health care, education, and income assistance.  One cannot meaningfully be said to be free without the basic means of survival and the minimal ingredients for a good life.  But this is not to dispute the importance of government stepping out of the way when appropriate to facilitate the growth of negative rights.  I am a strong believer in the anti-paternalism of John Stuart Mill: “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”  To me, this means that very high standards of necessity must be met for a government to grant itself jurisdiction over sex, drugs, religion, or expression.

My conception of freedom manifests itself not just individually but collectively as well.  In other words, democracy is not, as it is sometimes purported to be, in conflict with freedom, but rather is its collective manifestation.  (Some might consider “self-determination” a more appropriate term here, but I still believe that freedom is at the heart of my axiom, and I do not wish to dilute it with endless rewordings and qualifications.)  Democracy, according to this line of thinking, should be defended, broadened, and deepened.  In general, consensus is to be preferred over majoritarianism, decentralization over centralization, and participation over representation.  Furthermore, democracy ought to be expanded to realms beyond the political.  The economy, for instance, is in crucial need of democratization through well-designed government regulation and growth of the public sector, as well as increased unionization and the spread of cooperatives.

So where do sustainability and equality fit in?  Beginning with sustainability, it goes without saying that any value derived from freedom is limited by time — by how long it lasts.  And with air and water quality, natural resources, the global climate, and the integrity of ecosystems on which we depend for survival all under threat from the excesses of our civilization, it is not entirely clear how much longer the “good life” will last.  It it therefore imperative, for the sake of holding on to what we have, that we view each individual and collective decision we make through the lens of environmental sustainability.

What is more, we must recognize that it is not only humans whose freedom is important, but all those sentient beings who are on the front lines of the ecological damage that we cause.  It may sound strange to speak of the freedom of animals, for they lack rationality and human language, and for the most part are probably without self-awareness.  But the basic mark of inherent moral worth, as Jeremy Bentham noted, is the ability to feel pleasure and pain.  Just like us, animals are drawn to pleasure and repelled by pain, and we are obliged to fairly weigh these preferences (or proto-preferences) against our own.  To consider only human interests when altering the natural world is the height of selfishness and arrogance.  Other species too deserve our consideration.

Which brings us to equality — by which I mean economic equality, sexual equality, racial equality, intergenerational equality, and even inter-species equality (with qualifications).  The principle of diminishing marginal utility states, plainly speaking, that the more you have of something, the less you want of any additional unit.  One more dollar in the hands of a millionaire, for instance, while he or she will still certainly want it, will not be nearly as appreciated as it is in the hands of a welfare recipient.  This principle is the line that connects freedom (as broadly defined by me) and equality — two values that are commonly (and wrongly) thought to be locked in an eternal battle of mutual exclusivity.  In fact, those on the bottom must be lifted up in order to satisfy their preferences and truly experience freedom, and in a finite world this can only realistically happen if those on top are knocked down a peg.

This is not to say that we must be in a state of absolute equality.  There is some truth to the conservative claim, for instance, that some economic inequality is necessary to provide incentives for good work.  All that I say is that because of the principle of diminishing marginal utility, the burden of proof must be on those who resist calls for greater equality.  It is hard to deny that in today’s world, and in most of its countries, current levels of inequality are far higher than they need to be (to say nothing of the shaky link that exists between riches and merit in our imperfect world).  Accordingly, it is reasonable to judge any policy proposal in part by how it affects the haves and how it affects the have-nots.

So that, briefly, is what I believe.  The principles of freedom, sustainability, and equality are what inform my pie-in-the-sky vision of utopia: a diverse, decentralized, participatory democracy; structured around a strongly civil libertarian constitution; and coexisting with a zero-growth, de-centrally planned economy leaning towards the libertarian or associational end of the socialist spectrum.  I hope to continue to expand on these themes in future posts, as current events unfold and as new ideas come to me.  Thank you for reading!